News from Space: NASA’s Future Spacesuit

z-seriessuit1It’s no secret that the human race is poised on a new generation of space exploration and travel. With future missions based on towing asteroids to Earth, building settlements on the Moon, and walking on Mars, NASA and other space agencies are eying their aging hardware and looking for design modifications. From shuttles, to rockets, to capsules, everything is getting an overhaul. And now, NASA is looking to create the next generation of space suits, and is looking to the public’s for help.

They are called the Z-series, a revolutionary new suit that is designed for walking on Mars as well as floating around in space and performing spacewalks. This new series is expected to replace the current aging design, which has been in continuous use on both space flights and aboard the International Space Station since 1982. In addition to updated technology and functionality, the new spacesuit also has an updated look.

NASA_suitThe first design was unveiled back in December of 2012 with the Z-1, which bore a striking resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s own spacesuit. The new version (the Z-2 series), which has different joint designs and a more durable torso, also comes with a trio of “flashy” cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University, and were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even – supposedly – street fashion.

z-seriessuit2And unlike the current microgravity suits, the Z-series is designed for walking in extra-terrestrial environments where gravity is the norm (i.e. the Moon and Mars). Intrinsic to the new design is flexibility: it makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on quite differently. Whereas the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside.

As Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design explained:

There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit. A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there. You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin,” Jones explains.

z-seriessuit4As previously noted, anyone can help decide among the three cover designs by casting a vote on NASA’s website. One option, inspired by underwater creatures (and known as the “Biomimicry” suit), employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version – known as the “Technology” suit – pays homage to past spacesuits and uses light-emitting patches along with wire. The third option, inspired by “Trends in Society”, uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.

NASA says the final design is “reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future,” pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech. NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year. And they are hardly alone in looking to create suits that can handle the challenges of future exploration. For example, it’s also worth checking out this MIT professor Dava Newman sleek Mars spacesuit, aka. the “Spiderman Spacesuit”, that is currently in development.

In the meantime, check out this video from Ted Talks where Newman showcases her Spiderman suit. And be sure to head over to the Johnson Space Center’s website and cast your vote for what NASA’s next-generation spacesuit will look like.


News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted